Reacting to recent media reports, a witness has come forward who says death-row inmate Lester Bower's long-time innocence claims are true, and that her ex-boyfriend and three other men committed the quadruple murder of which he was convicted. This news arrives just weeks before Bower's scheduled execution on July 22. But inexplicably, the Grayson County DA opposes DNA testing that might corroborate this new testimony, preferring instead to push forward with the execution. Reports the Fort Worth Star Telegram ("Witness says condemned Arlington man not responsible for 1983 slayings," June 29):
The science to match biological evidence through DNA simply didn't exist when a Grayson County jury convicted Bower in 1983. What could be the harm of testing the evidence?
Bower’s lawyers say they have identified the four men whom Pearl alleges to be the killers, have documented their long criminal records and have confirmed other key parts of her story. In recent months, a defense investigator has also located another witness, the wife of one of alleged accomplices who said she heard the four men discussing the killings. The names of the new suspects, though known to defense lawyers, have remained sealed by court order.
"I don’t want Mr. Bower to die for something that he didn’t do," said Pearl, who broke up with her boyfriend shortly after the slayings and remains fearful of him today. Since she signed the affidavit in 1989, her identity has been concealed by court order. "I know in my heart that he didn’t do it. I just could not in my conscience sit back and just go, 'Oh well, sorry.’
"If he would have gotten life in prison, I can’t sit here and honestly say I would have done something different. Life is what, 30 years in the state of Texas? But he got the death penalty, and there’s no getting out of that."
This past week, Bower’s lawyers filed a 65-page legal motion in Sherman’s 15th state District Court detailing the scenario developed after Pearl came forward. The petition asks state Judge Jim Fallon to delay Bower’s execution, vacate his conviction and death sentence, and conduct hearings on his innocence claim.
Because of the plodding appellate system in death penalty cases — Bower’s appeal languished in federal court alone for 16 years — and the shifting nature of capital punishment law, this is the first opportunity for a Texas court to seriously consider the merits of Bower’s innocence claim, his lawyers say. When Pearl first came forward, Texas law precluded state judges from considering evidence gathered more than 30 days after a conviction. The so-called 30-day rule is no longer in effect in Texas because federal judges have ruled that such post-conviction claims need to be adjudicated by the state.
"Whatever you think about the benefits of having capital punishment, no one could possibly argue that executing an innocent man is in the interests of the state, or our society," said Anthony Roth, one of Bower’s lawyers. "Our interests as lawyers and as people should be that our government, when in doubt, should not go forward with an execution. There is ample evidence to give people reasonable doubt about whether Les committed these murders. In my view, the evidence is compelling that he didn’t."
A Grayson County prosecutor, Karla Hackett, said Wednesday that the state will vigorously contest Bower’s innocence claim. Prosecutors also oppose a defense motion to have saliva, hair fibers and cigarette butts from the crime scene tested for DNA. Bower’s lawyers hope that the analysis will link one of the men accused by Pearl to the crime.
"There’s no way there is actual innocence here," Hackett said, citing the large amount of circumstantial evidence against Bower. "DNA is not going to make all that go away. It’s another delaying tactic. It’s normal. We expect it. There’s four dead men, and all the evidence points straight to Lester Leroy Bower Jr."
Even if Bower was involved, why ignore evidence that might identify an accomplice? If the conviction was right, the state has nothing to fear from DNA testing. If they're wrong, why wouldn't they want to catch the mistake before the fellow's pending date with the lethal injection chamber?